Monday, November 05, 2007

Beating the Utility Computing Lockdown

If you haven't seen it yet, there is an interesting little commotion going on in the utility computing blogosphere. Robert X. Cringley and Nick Carr, with the help of Ashley Vance at The Register, are having fun picking apart the announcement that Google is contributing to the MySQL open source project. Cringley started the fun with a conspiracy theory that I think holds some weight, though--as the others point out--perhaps not a literally as he states it. In my opinion, Cringley, Carr and Vance accurately raise the question, "will you get locked into your choice of utility computing capacity vendor, whether you like it or not?"

I've discussed my concerns about vendor lock in before, but I think its becoming increasingly clear that the early capacity vendors are out to lock you in to their solution as quickly and completely as possible. And I'm not just talking about pure server capacity (aka "HaaS") vendors, such as Amazon or the bevy of managed hosting providers that have announced "utility computing" solutions lately. I'm talking about SaaS vendors, such as, and PaaS vendors such as Ning.

Why is this a problem? I mean, after all, these companies are putting tremendous amounts of money into building the software and datacenter platforms necessary to deliver the utility computing vision. The problem, quite frankly, is that while lock-in can increase the profitability of the service provider, it is not always as beneficial for the customer. I'm not one to necessarily push the mantra "everything should be commodity", but I do believe strongly that no one vendor will get it entirely right, and no one customer will always choose the right vendor for them the first time out.

With regards to vendor lock-in and "openness", Ning is an interesting case in point; I noticed with interest last week Marc Andreesen's announcements regarding Ning and the Open Social API. First, let me get on the record as saying that Open Social is a very cool integration standard. A killer app is going to come out of social networking platforms, and Open Social will allow the lucky innovator to spread the cheer across all participating networks and network platforms. That being said, however, note that Marc announced nothing about sharing data across platforms. In social networking, the data is what keeps you on the platform, not the executables.

(Maybe I'm an old fogey now, but I think the reason I've never latched on to Facebook or MySpace is because I started with LinkedIn many years ago, and I though most of my contacts are professional, quite a few of my personal contacts are also captured there. Why start over somewhere else?)

In the HaaS world, software payloads (including required data) are the most valuable components to the consumer of capacity. As most HaaS vendors do little (or nothing) to ease the effort it takes to provision a server with the appropriate OS, your applications, data, any utilities or tools you want available, security software, etc. So there is little incentive for the HaaS world to ease transition between vendors until a critical mass is reached where the pressure to commoditize breaks the lock-in barrier. All of the "savings" purported by these vendors will be limited to what they can save you over hosting it yourself in your existing environment.

Saas also has data portability issues, which have been well documented elsewhere. Most companies that have purchased ERP and CRM services online have seen this eventuality, though most if not all have yet to feel that pain.

Where am I going with all this? I want to reiterate my call for both server and data level portability standards in the utility computing world, with a target of avoiding the pain to customers that lock-in can create. I want the expense of choosing a capacity or application vendor to be the time it takes to research them, compare competitors and sign up for the service. If I have to completely re-provision my IT environment to change vendors, then that becomes the overwhelming costs, and I will never be able to move.

Truth is, open standards don't guarantee that users will flee one environment for another at the drop of a hat. Look at SQL as an example. When I worked for Forte Software many years ago, we had the ability to swap back end RDBMS vendors without changing code long before JDBC or Hybernate. The funny thing is, in six years of working with that product, not one customer changed databases just because the other guy was cheaper. I grant you that there were other costs to consider, but I really believe that the best vendors with the best service at the right price for that service will keep loyal customers whether or not they implement lock-in features.

For HaaS needs, there are alternatives to going out of house for cheap capacity. Most notably, virtualization and automation with the right platforms could let you get those 10 cents/CPU-hour rates with the datacenter you already own. The secret is to use capital equipment more effectively and efficiently while reducing the operations expenses required to keep that equipment running. In other words, if you worry about how you will maintain control over your own data and applications in a HaaS/SaaS world, turn your own infrastructure into a SaaS.

That's not to say I never see a value for Amazon, Google, et al. Rather, I think the market should approach their offerings with caution, making sure that the time and expense it takes to build their business technology platforms is not repeated when their capacity partners fail to deliver. Once portability technologies are common and supported broadly, then the time will come to rapidly shut down "private" corporate datacenters and move capacity to the computing "grid". More on this process later.

1 comment:

Bert said...

Thanks for a well reasoned post. I'm amazed more developers aren't wary of lock-in. It can hamper your ability to evolve your application, reach new users, and monetize your usage.

However, I would like to point out that not all vendors are working to create lock-in. At 3tera, our AppLogic users already enjoy the ability to move entire distributed applications, complete with data, between any of our partner's data centers in the US and Europe with a single command.